(CN) – Nearly a month after the court-ordered deadline for the federal government to reunited children separated from their parents after illegally entering the United States, two immigrants rights groups claim federal agents coerced parents to agree to deportation before getting their children back.
In a complaint filed with the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, on Thursday, the American Immigration Council and American Immigration Lawyers Association claim federal agents created a coercive environment “so overpowering as to render many mothers and fathers unable to answer questions or even comprehend the purpose of credible fear interviews or the removal process overall.”
According to the 28-page complaint, the parents faced “physical and verbal threats, deception and intimation” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents intended to get the families to sign deportation forms.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but the department has denied similar allegations.
Appearing before a Senate committee in July, Matt Albence, an executive associate director at ICE, said officers were not using coercive measures to deport immigrant parents.
Katie Shepherd, an attorney with the Immigration Justice Campaign, said many immigrants reported receiving spoiled food and sleeping on cold concrete floors in cramped conditions during their time in government-run detention facilities.
“These conditions combined with the trauma of family separation created an inordinately corrosive and stressful environment which colored every interaction that they had with any government officials thereafter,” Shepherd said.
She said a survey of 76 immigrant mothers asked by ICE agents to sign a deportation forms revealed that 90 percent were not allowed to ask about the consequences of doing so.
The survey also found one-fourth of respondents said they did not understand what they were signing.
More than 2,600 children were separated from their parents earlier this year as a result of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance policy,” which required all immigrants illegally crossing the border be sent to jail to be criminally prosecuted. As a result, their children were sent to shelters.
A federal judge in San Diego set a July 26 deadline for the government to reunite families. But a month later, many immigrant families still remain separated. According to the complaint, 565 children are still in government custody waiting reunification while an estimated 366 parents were deported without their children.
Taylor Levy, the legal coordinator at the Annunciation House in El Paso, one of the four shelters that receives reunified families, said that she estimates there’s about 75 parents in the El Paso area who are still waiting to be reunified with their children.
She said since the deadline, only five families have been reunified at the non-profit shelter and said many have felt intimidated by federal agents during the separation and reunification process.
In one instance, said Levy, seven parents said shortly after they were reunified with their children that they refused to sign pre-checked forms from ICE agents that said they agreed to be deported with their children.
She said one immigrant claimed an ICE agent took his form away when he tried to check another box that said he did not agree to be deported with his child.
“The officer angrily pulled it away, crumbled it up, handed him a new form, and said, ‘No, you were supposed to sign here,’” Levy said.
She said the parents were then separated again from their children and sent back to detention facilities.
There’s no deadline for when DHS has to respond to the complaint.
Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said previously response times for complaints have been a “problem” and is not sure when – or if – they will respond.
“If their answer is nothing but silence then I think that will be more reasons for deep concern about what’s happening and the agency’s ability to respond to it,” Johnson said.